Water, Water Everywhere

I was going to give this post another title, but if you actually know the poem it would have wound up being fairly dirty. I’ve had two full nights of sleep, which have been magnificently wonderful in every way, and I’m looking forward to sleeping again tonight. A friend of mine actually prayed over me yesterday concerning my sleep problems, which was completely appreciated. As much as I talk about the power of prayer, sometimes I’m honestly not sure that I believe it. Only sometimes though. I absolutely believe in talking to God, and in listening to him, but there are times when I wonder if my prayers have an actual effect on my life. Needless to say, I prayed often for ease in sleeping over the past few days, and yet I still went three days with almost no sleep. That is always unpleasant at best (though I have to admit that it’s good to know that I can still go that long without sleep and function).

Saturday morning I went for a hike (Yay! my knee’s better and I can hike!) and I had a long talk with God. We talked about many things, but one of the things that we talked about was marriage and women. I cannot say that I have prayed for the woman that I will marry everyday since I was saved. However, I can say that I have been praying for her since I was saved. I have prayed for her for the past thirteen years. Sometimes that God would teach her, sometimes that he would bless her, sometimes that he would give her joy and happiness, and sometimes that he would bring her to me. Often my prayers are fairly general. I trust God to know what is best. Sometimes though, whether because he has laid something specific on my heart, or because I have a specific desire, they are not general at all. Saturday, I asked God to let me be in a relationship with my wife before the end of the year. His response? It’s not time yet.

Honestly, I’ve had this response many times over the years. Marriage and relationship is a desire that I struggle with (obviously). It’s a desire that I’ve given to God multiple times, that I’ve asked him to take from me, that I’ve wrestled with, and that I’ve submitted to. There have been times when I put that desire before my relationship with God (the last girl I dated God flat out told me that she wasn’t good for me). There have been times when I set it aside in order to pursue God. There have been times when I trust him with it, and there have been times when I don’t.

Last Tuesday I had coffee with a young women. It was fairly fun. Not stellar as far as dates go, but certainly not bad by any means either. She expressed some interest in doing it again, or perhaps going out with a group of people. So I called her and asked if she’d like to see a movie with some friends and I a few days later. She didn’t return my call until my friends and I were walking out of the theater. Normally I would accept her excuse of business, and optimistically keep trying. I would hold on to the thread of a possibility that she was actually interested, or that she might be, even though she didn’t seem interested. I decided not to do that this time. It might be a missed opportunity, I honestly don’t know if this is the right decision, but she doesn’t appear interested, so I’m going to assume she’s not.

Honestly, I’m considering simply taking till December and telling God that if I’m not going to pursue anyone unless he specifically tells me to. When it comes to women I’m still fairly lost. That being said, I actually know what it means to be loved. I can point to multiple people and say ‘I have no doubt that he/she loves me’. Their love might not be romantic, but I know that this is what I want in a relationship. I want someone who loves me, completely and with a whole heart. So, I think I’m pretty much done until I find that. Honestly, I might change my mind tomorrow… it happens often enough, but I might not.

The Inward Understanding of Prayer

Recently I’ve been reading Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God and I just started E.M. Bounds Essentials of Prayer. Prayer is an interesting topic on which many great and worthy volumes have been written, each with it’s own approach, conception, and fundamental understanding of the importance of prayer. There are many who believe that prayer exists solely to guide the mind and heart of the believer to God, and that it has no fundamentally real effect on the world outside of the believer. There are others, as I have written about before, who believe that prayer is akin to a magical spell which the believer can use to force God to accede to his wishes. Some believe that prayer is a simple thing, that it is easily pursued and it’s goals are easily obtained. Others argue that prayer requires the absolute and total concentration and devotion of the believer, that a half-hearted or half-minded prayer is utterly worthless, possibly even that God does not hear these prayers in the first place. I think that prayer is all of these things and more.

Prayer is, at its very core, our communication with God. There are times in which our prayers are uttered in confusion. They are half-hearted, half-said, half-meant because we ourselves do not truly know or understand for what we pray. We are easily distracted and often utterly without conviction. We lose ourselves on a daily basis, and must seek God for any hope of finding ourselves again. In these times, we are told by scripture, the Holy Spirit translates our prayers for us. No prayer passes by God unnoticed. No utterance, no matter how confused or insincere, is lost to the rolling tides of time. God knows all, sees all, hears all, and so all prayer is meaningful in that it is communication with God, but this does not mean that God responds in the affirmative to all prayer.

However, any attempt to parse out the prayers that God answers and those that he doesn’t is an exercise in ridiculousness. Who are we, simple and foolish men, to lay out rules upon God. Make no mistake, this is often what we do. We search the scriptures for verses that support our ideas and desires, and then we make those into unbendable sanctions upon the divine. We claim verses from John 15 or Christ’s promises to Peter and make them into manifest laws that, when we pray in a certain way, God must give us what we want. Similarly, we take verses from Paul’s epistles or from James and transform them into unalterable standards that all men must meet for their prayers to reach God’s ears.

I have found that these issues of practical theology are best governed by one simple rule, place not upon God, but upon man’s desire to define things: God is God. He can do whatever he wants.

There is much wisdom concerning prayer in scripture, and many promises concerning the effectual nature of prayer. However, the one thing that we can see both from scripture and from experience is that God does as he desires. Consider the failure of Paul’s prayers to remove his ‘thorn in the flesh’, or the failure of the disciples in casting evil spirits out of a young boy. Even at our best, the understanding of man is utterly and thoroughly limited, and any attempt to understand the power of prayer must begin with an inward conviction that we are not in charge. We do not make the rules, we do not define the standards, we do not tell God how things work or what he is allowed to do.

Instead, we must come to prayer with a humble spirit and a contrite heart, fully aware of our own depravity, and of the eternal grace that God has laid upon us to cover our many sins. We must begin by understanding that prayer, at its core, is communication with God. It is our conversation with a loving, gracious, jealous, wrathful, just (and so much more) father who has the will, the right, and the power to do whatever he desires with and in us, and who loves each of us more than can be understood. Any discussion of prayer must begin with the inward understanding that our first purpose is to glorify him, and the humility to make that purpose our overriding goal. Whatever other intention our prayers might have, this is the core, and when we forget that, then we lose sight of the foundation upon which our lives of prayer are built.

Practicing the Presence of God

I think I’ve mentioned before that God took six years to teach me how to trust him. For the last two years he’s been teaching me about hope and joy. I’m a slow learner. Honestly, I wish that I wasn’t. I think that a lot of my life would be easier if I were less stubborn, less prideful, and more teachable. At the same time, I am confident that God made me a slow learner for a reason. I can definitely say that I value the lessons that I learn deeply, though I’ve certainly still got a long way to go.

I’ve been reading Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God, which is an excellent little book. I wrote yesterday about where I’ve been the past few days, and this is true of today as well. I’m pretty much struggling at the moment. Massive doses of rejection will do that to a person. That being said, as I’ve just told a friend of mine, when I put Brother Lawrence’s idea into practice, when I keep my mind focused on God instead of on anything else, then I find that I’m doing really well. I’m upbeat, happy, encouraged and encouraging, and focused on whatever it is that I’m doing.

Whenever I let my focus slip from God to… pretty much anything else right now, then I tumble into a pit of self-pity, rejection, despair, and worthlessness.  It’s not easy, though seeing as how he’s kind of my only bright spot right now it was pretty easy today… respectively speaking. However, I still find myself struggling with questions of why no woman wants me.

I like to figure out which character on a television show I identify with, and I’ve been watching Desperate Housewives recently which, despite being poorly titled, is a show that deals very well with a wide variety of sticky moral and relational issues. The show, unlike some would lead one to believe, doesn’t really present it’s characters as moral or good in any reasonable way. In fact, the vast majority of the characters do very questionable things, but it does present them as real people individually… well, most of them (though not as a real group of people). The individual struggles of each character are definitely real issues. You have the perfectionist who’s legalism destroys her family. The struggling mother trying to keep up with crazy kids, the single mom looking for love, and the cheating wife. Then you have their sex obsessed but caring, hark-working, cheating, and money obsessed husbands/ex-husbands. Again all present real issues that people deal with, but magnified to make them more easily visible. The farther you get into the show, the more real each character becomes. None of the character’s is purely good or purely evil. All of them have high points and low points, just like real people.

Then there’s Ray. Ray is an attractive, but romantically hopeless man who is quite possibly a sociopath. He replaces the medication of Rex (perfectionist’s husband) with potassium pills, which leads to his death, because Ray has convinced himself that he’s in love with the man’s wife. He then goes on to court her, assault her psychotherapist, manipulate her into an engagement, and finally, when she breaks off the engagement, tries to manipulate her into staying with him by attempting suicide. Ray assumes that she’ll save him… she doesn’t. The thing is, I kind of get Ray. He does some terrible things, but he’s also desperate. He’s desperate for someone to love him, and for someone to want him (honestly, a better title for the show might be Desperate People), and I know how that feels. I identify strongly with the backstory that they give to Ray, and that scares me a little bit.

However, I also know myself. I can see the differences between myself and Ray. I think Ray (or worse) is what I might have become if God hadn’t drawn me into a relationship with him. That still scares me a little bit, but not as much as it might. The thing is, like Ray, I don’t understand why I am consistently being rejected. However, unlike Ray, I’m not really sure that I need to. God is drawing me to himself, ever closer, and if this is what that looks like, then it is good. As I just told my friend, the past few days have been good, but rough. Filled with self-doubt and more than a little pain and frustration, but also filled with a longing for God.

Brother Lawrence claims that he found daily joy simply by focusing on God in all things. By always keeping in mind that God was with him, and focusing his thoughts on that God. Even he admitted that this was difficult for him at first, but I think it will get easier with time. If I can keep my focus on God, then I can find everything I need in him, and that’s where I want to be.

The Two Faces of Prayer

A couple of days ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine about Joel Osteen and the Prosperity Gospel movement, and for those of you who have a problem with calling this movement a ‘gospel’ movement, the word gospel comes from the Old English word ‘godspel’ which is a translation of the Latin ‘bona adnuntiatio’ which is also a translation of the Greek ‘euangelion’. Euangelion, Bona Adnuntiatio, Godspel, and Gospel all have one simple meaning: ‘good message’. Christians use this term to refer to the message of Christ, but having someone tell you that God is going to make you rich, healthy, and happy certainly counts as a good message. Not a true message, but a good message. That being said, my friend asked me the question: can’t Christians lean a little bit more on the prosperity gospel? Why is it so offensive to believe that God might want to give his children good things?

I was thinking about writing this post last night, which would have made it timely, but incomplete. In church this morning I was reminded of the second half of the issue: Prayer has the power to change God’s mind. If you don’t believe that then read Exodus 32, or Amos 7. This is not to say that God is variable or wishy-washy, but that prayer is effectual from time to time. Honestly, the entire concept that God changes his mind is theologically… challenging to say the least. We are told in scripture that God knows everything, that he is unchanging and constant, and that (at least on specific occasions) he changes his mind. I’m not going to try to break this down into a theologically understandable construction… to be honest I’m not sure that I can at the moment. Much like the hypostatic union, this is something that I don’t understand, and that I’m not entirely convinced I am even capable of understanding to any reasonable degree. However, I am confident that it is. God is constant, he is all-knowing, and yet he does change his mind. Not easily, and certainly not capriciously, and unlike ourselves when God changes his mind it is not a sign of changing or imperfect character.

So, all to often, attitudes concerning prayer in Christian America fall into one of two camps: either prayer is magic, or prayer is ineffectual, or at least only effectual for the internal being of the believer and not effectual for actual issues in life. Let me treat the prayer is magic attitude first: many Christians treat prayer as though it is a formula to make God do what they want. I’ve had people tell me that I was ‘praying wrong’ and explain that if I phrased my prayer in ‘this’ way that nothing would happen, but if I phrased it ‘that’ way then God must answer my prayer. This is both in part a cause of and in part a result of both the prosperity gospel and the word/faith movements in modern theology. The problem, as I explained to my friend, with the prosperity gospel movement is that it takes a part of the Christian gospel (that part that promises good things and answered prayer) and ignores the rest (all that stuff about suffering isn’t really important after all). The prosperity gospel movement promises and focuses on satisfaction through worldly treasures, which is exactly what Christ tells us not to do (the Beatitudes anyone? Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and all that). The word/faith movement combines with this focus a belief in the inherent power of human language. This movement teaches that our words can change our physical reality, and that the right combinations of words can force things to happen. This then places God in the power of man. God must do what want as long as I phrase my desire correctly, and thus it is my will and not God’s will that truly matters. Clearly, again, this contravenes the teaching of scripture (James: you have not because you ask not, and when you do ask, you ask with the wrong motives, to satisfy your own lusts… I might have paraphrased a little). As I’ve said before, a good working definition of magic is the magician’s attempt to alter his physical reality through the manipulation of spiritual forces. Thus, these movements treat prayer as though it is magic, and prayer is not magic.

However, often in reaction to these movements, but sometimes through a reliance on logical reasoning, or simple bitterness that God has not done our will, but his instead, many of us respond by rejecting the effectual nature of prayer entirely. We argue that prayer ‘changes the believer’ instead of that prayer ‘changes the world’. Again, this isn’t entirely untrue. Just as God does promise his people good things, he also promises them suffering. Just as God does explain the effectual nature of prayer in the physical world, he explains the important effect of prayer in the mind and heart of the believer. In part, the purpose of prayer is to draw us into communion with the father and to mold us in the image of Christ… in part.

At it’s core, prayer is our means of communicating with God. Just like your cell-phone *luddite grumbling* is your means of communicating with your biological father, prayer is your means of communicating with God. Just like you wouldn’t only call your actual father when you need something (… if you do, and I’ve been that person, you are a horrible, horrible child. Go call your parents and tell them that you love them), you shouldn’t make your prayers into a list of needs and wants. Hopefully, prayer should mostly be a chance to talk to God, to relate, repent, worship, and yes, request. However, it is also a time to listen to God. If you are a Christian, God speaks to you. If you don’t hear him, then you need to learn how to listen (… logically the other possibility is that you’re not really saved… but we generally don’t like to talk about that).

Just like you’re biological father, God does actually want what’s best for you. Unlike your biological father, you have no recourse to say that God is being arrogant when he acts like he does know what’s best for you… he knows everything, remember? However, this does not mean that when I ask God for something he simply ignores me. He might not give me exactly what I want, but he does take my requests into account. So, prayer is effectual in the world, it is not magic, and it is important for me to understand the difference.

A Good Talking To

It’s always nice when you get a good solid talking to from God. Tonight, I got a doozy of a talking to. I was, admittedly, praying about the thing with that girl at my church. Complaining might be a better word for it than praying, honestly. I’m starting to realize that I really and truly don’t want to date anyone at the moment, and just how scared I am of the entire concept of what he’s asking me to do. Not to say that asking a girl to lunch should really be all that scary, just that it is all that scary.

Well, tonight I’m having trouble sleeping. I even took a sleeping pill and I’m having trouble sleeping. So, as I’m lying in bed praying/complaining/praying God gets my attention and tells me to get on my face. I’ll be honest, I’ve had serious talkings to from God before. I was always a problem kid and I guess that hasn’t changed. I know that I’ve mentioned before that God cusses at me sometimes. He never does this when he’s serious about getting my attention, or when he has something specific to say to me. He does it when it’s what I need to hear to do what he wants me to do.

The serious talkings to are much, much more frighting. They always start with ‘I love you.’ Tonight, God told me that he loved me, and then he told me that I need to show a little trust. He talked to me both about the exorcist I met, and about this girl at church. He pointed out that the exorcist was his servant and I didn’t need to be wary of him. That was the easy part. Then he spent a good ten minutes lecturing me about not trusting him. I believe the phrase was “If I hear ‘this is stupid’ come out of your mouth one more time…”

I’m not really a fan of when God doesn’t finish his sentences. I know that it means that he’s serious about something, but not angry about it. For me, when God doesn’t finish a sentence it’s not a threat (an ‘or else’ kind of thing), it’s a chastisement (a ‘don’t you know better by now’ kind of thing), and that’s when I know that I’ve been seriously stupid. I’ve been so scared, and so convinced that I was going to get hurt that I haven’t trusted him in this. Thing is, I asked him (before the talking to) to take away my fear of this, and at the moment… I’m not afraid anymore. I’m still going to talk to some Godly men about it. Ask for some wisdom and advice, but I think I know what I’m going to hear.

God answers our prayers, but not necessarily in the way we think he will. When I asked him to take away my fear of this, I didn’t expect him to chastise me, but it worked. Sometimes I just have to shake my head in wonder at the God I serve.

Getting What You Ask For

Taoism provides an interesting philosophical trap. I think that it is a good trap to fall into, but it is a trap nonetheless. Taoist teachings promise great authority and ability at persuasion, the ability to bend the world to your will and to make people do what you desire. However, to achieve these abilities one must truly, thoroughly, and permanently give up any desire to have authority, any ambition of the will, and any pursuit of power. In leaving off these things the ability to bend the world to one’s desires becomes obvious, but one’s desire to bend the world is gone. I think I’ve rather over-simplified this argument, and I have no doubt that both Laozi and Holmes Welch (the author of the book on Taoism I’m reading) would shake their heads in consternation at my inability to effectively express these ideas.

Nonetheless, reading today had me thinking about the many biblical promises that God will grant our every desire, and how they form the same wonderful trap. There are many places in scripture in which we are told that if we abide in Christ then we may ask whatever we desire and it will be granted. Note the italicized phrase there… it’s really important and I’m going to come back to it.

I used to work for a ‘Christian’ ministry company that prayed with people over the phone. People would call in and ask for prayer about something, and we would pray with them. Needless to say we had a lot of strange calls… I actually still have a list somewhere of 1400+ of the strangest prayer requests you’ve ever heard. Someday I plan to publish it… I should do that actually…. Anyway, the point, that I seem to have ambled away from rather thoroughly, is that the vast majority of the callers wanted magic. They believed that if you said the right words, in the right way, and with the right person that God has to give you what you ask for. We all tend to do this to some degree.

Richard Cavendish, a historian and occult author, defines magic as the manipulation of supernatural forces to achieve the magician’s temporal ends. This is a good definition, although my personal definition of magic is the illusion that man can control supernatural forces. In either definition the power is a reality. I am always amazed at people who believe in miracles but not in magic, or people who believe in God but not in demons.  However, the mistake that many Christians make is the attempt to control God. Whether we do so through bargaining, words of power (often scripture taken out of context), or ritual, the goal is the same: we want to make God give us what we want.

However, this is not what the New Testament promises. The New Testament promises that if we abide in Christ then God will give us what we want. However, when I am truly abiding in Christ, then my desires are few. Primarily, my desire is to know and pursue him more fully. Other desires fade away, or at least become unimportant by comparison, and when my desire is to know and pursue Christ more fully, then of course God is going to grant my desire. It is a beautiful trap, and it is a trap that seeks to and succeeds in making us both better and happier. Laozi said ‘Let me have few desires and be happy’ (I’m paraphrasing here). I think I agree with him.